Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 16

June 30, 2013

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues.


Some (often rather naive) Chinese-speakers argue that some features of the Chinese writing system should not be extended to alphabetically-written languages. For instance, one Wang (who wrote to me in 1990 seeking admission to the postgraduate program which I was then administering) believes that there are important relationships between the written forms of languages and their phonetic features, to the extent that those who attempt to think in one language while writing another (when the languages differ in respect of their usual writing systems) will always fail to do so. For example, he analyses symbols (Chinese characters, Japanese kana and Thai and Roman alphabetic letters) into dots and lines, and determines the percentages of dots and lines in versions of a short sample text in English, French, Thai, Chinese and Japanese. The three languages written alphabetically average 8% dots (92% lines); Chinese displays a 16%/84% breakdown and Japanese 25%/75%. Wang argues that these differences correlate with ‘supra-segmental’ features of the spoken languages, such as intonation and timing; he suggests that higher percentages of dots relate to higher auditory frequencies, etc. Some of his treatment of these matters involves measurable features (although he does not report any actual experimental data on frequency), but much of it is subjective, involving the impressions of listeners as to analogies for the sounds of the various languages.

Wang also proclaims unusual views regarding graphology as it applies to Chinese and to languages written alphabetically.

Because Chinese (of all kinds) has a very limited range of possible (monosyllabic) word-forms and thus limited resources for creating new simple words, it makes especially heavy use of transparent compounds. And, even where one member of a Chinese compound word is itself altogether arbitrary, the other is frequently transparent in context, typically referring to the kind of entity involved, as in Cantonese sa-yu, ‘shark’, literally ‘shark-fish’, and the Cantonese names for many other kinds of fish. (Although this pattern does of course occur in languages such as English, it is much less systematic and mainly involves entities less commonly referred to, as in catfish, swordfish, etc. as opposed to salmon, tench, etc.) Various non-mainstream Chinese writers, notably one named Su who wrote to me in the 1990s, have identified this feature of their language as particularly efficient, treating expressions literally meaning ‘pig meat’, ‘cow meat’ etc. as superior to wholly arbitrary single-morpheme forms with the same senses such as English pork, beef etc. But these authors generally overstate their case, ignoring other features in respect of which the morphological systems of European languages might appear preferable. For instance, forms such as pork and beef, which share no morpheme, are more recognisably different than their Chinese equivalents in situations where there is interference to communication, as on a poor telephone line.

Of course, a small percentage of the logographic, monomorphemic characters used to write Chinese are non-arbitrary (they are pictographic, at least in origin); but this is not (centrally) relevant here.

Su also proclaims unusual (associated) views regarding manifestations of dyslexia in Chinese and in languages written alphabetically.

Some authors perceive an established script as so highly valued that it is almost ‘sacred’ in character and must not be altered even to small degrees. Tienzen Gong goes so far as to identify Chinese (with its script) as ‘Pre-Babel: the true Universal Language’, claiming to be setting up a ‘new paradigm of linguistics’. He cites F.S.C. Northrop as stating that ‘the Easterner … uses bits of linguistic symbolism, largely denotative, and often purely ideographic in character, to point toward a component in the nature of things which only immediate experience and continued contemplation can convey. This shows itself especially in the symbols of the Chinese language, where each solitary, immediately experienced local particular tends to have its own symbol, this symbol also often having a directly observed form like that of the immediately seen item of direct experience which it denotes … As a consequence, there was no alphabet. This automatically eliminates the logical whole-part relation between one symbol and another that occurs in the linguistic symbolism of the West in which all words are produced by merely putting together in different permutations the small number of symbols constituting the alphabet’ (emphasis in original). These comments about alphabetic writing are essentially uncontroversial; however, the use of the terms denotative and especially ideographic suggest a mistaken, quasi-cross-linguistic interpretation of Chinese script, which is naturally language-specific and thus logographic rather than ideographic. Gong accepts Northrop’s general analysis but obviously rejects his rather negative verdict on the philosophical consequences of the use of Chinese script (arguably inconsistently).

More next time!


For my new book Strange Linguistics, see:

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.

Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 15

June 23, 2013

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues.


Some interesting work on communication with putative extraterrestrial aliens has emerged from the more general body of work on SETI (Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence); this material arises in the context of informed speculation regarding alien intelligence and psychology. (See for example Stuart Holroyd, Alien Intelligence (New York, 1979) and sections in many other books on this theme; more recent references include; Terry Colvin, items at; Anassa Rhenisch,; Stephen Battersby, ‘We’re Over Here’, New Scientist (23/1/10), pp. 28-31; ‘Meet the Neighbours’, New Scientist (23/1/10), pp. 31-33; Anthony Judge,; Steve Connor, ‘Even if we found aliens, how would we communicate?’, The Independent (online), 25 January 2010, available at; etc.) Even here, however, the discussion, though interesting, is often seriously lacking in specifically linguistic expertise. For instance, it is often assumed that core notions in science and especially logic and mathematics – believed to be very generally shared – will permit rapid movement towards overall decipherment of texts and mutual understanding in conversational contexts.

For an example of this notion in a science-fiction context, see H. Beam Piper, ‘Omnilingual’, Astounding Science Fiction, February 1957. Piper knew that the periodic table is of universal validity and assumed that it would be perceived and presented in a similar manner by almost any intelligent species. For comment on such cases, see for example Walter E. Meyers, Aliens and Linguists: Language Study and Science Fiction (Athens, GA, 1980), pp. 42-3; also online sources such as
http://tenser. typepad. com/tenser_said_the_tensor/2004/02/omnilingual_by_. html.) However, given the diversity of structures and concepts even among human languages and cultures at comparable technological levels, this may be over-optimistic, at least in some respects. The grammatical and semantic systems even of human languages, if these are unrelated, can certainly differ very dramatically.

Among those active in this area, John Elliott in particular has worked in computational linguistics and is familiar with relevant principles such as ‘Zipf’s Law’, which expresses the relative frequencies of words based on their lengths (see George K. Zipf, The Psycho-History of Language: An Introduction to Dynamic Philology (Cambridge, MA, 1935)). However, even Elliott’s program may still appear over-optimistic and inadequately informed by the literature on linguistic typology and other ‘non-computational’ aspects of the discipline. Indeed, he appears to believe, for example, that phonological information alone can reveal grammatical patterns, which is hardly possible. It does have to be said that some computational linguists know too little core linguistics and/or have come to idiosyncratic ideas about same. This sometimes has to be set against the undoubted benefits of their unusual perspective on the subject.

For Elliott, see for example John Elliott, ‘A Semantic ‘Engine’ for Universal Translation’, Journal of the International Academy of Astronautics, Acta Astronautica, 68 (2010), pp. 435-40, Elliott’s profile at, and other works by Elliott.

More next time!


For my new book Strange Linguistics, see:

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.

Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 14

June 15, 2013

Hi again, everybody! Back from Yorkshire! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues.


Readers may have noted the exchanges between Goran Hammarstrom and me regarding the ideas of the man who burst onto the linguistic scene at the age of 29 in 1957 with his book Syntactic Structures and in many respects ‘revolutionised’ the field; Steven Pinker and many other younger scholars continue to promote and develop his ideas. (Of course, Chomsky is also known as a political thinker; the degree to which his notions in these two areas of study genuinely relate to each other is debated.) Without embracing Chomsky’s ‘paradigms’, I acknowledge and respect many of his contributions to the discipline, for instance as an English grammarian; but I find other aspects of his work decidedly unconvincing. Goran, of course, has a more squarely negative view and regards some of Chomsky’s main ideas as evidently ‘nonsense’.

One problem here involves the ATTITUDES of Chomskyan linguists to professional disagreement and criticism. Chomsky himself was recently interviewed for the Podcast ‘Skeptically Speaking’. In this interview, he presents a very typically one-sided account of the relationship between him and his followers, on the one hand, and linguists with markedly different views, on the other. As is often suggested in Chomskyan discussion, he states that anyone who rejects his nativism or his theory of Universal Grammar (and is not, for instance, a ‘supernaturalist’ who believes that language arose by way of a miracle) MUST be misunderstanding him. And in places he even seems to equate ‘scientific linguists’ per se and his own specific framework. But non-Chomskyan linguists (Peter Matthews, Roy Harris, Geoffrey Sampson, etc.) would argue that it is instead Chomsky and his followers who typically misunderstand or fail to understand their objections to Chomskyan ideas, and indeed that some Chomskyan thought is in the final analysis unintelligible.

In fact, some Chomskyans are apparently OFFENDED by criticisms, as if their views were analogous to religious doctrines rather than representing scientific findings which (like any such findings) might possibly prove to be mistaken. For instance, Geoffrey Sampson draws attention to the fact that the prominent Chomskyan linguist Neil Smith commented on his own views in terms of distaste. Such a response is indicative of a stance which can hardly be deemed scientific or even rational. Indeed, Chomsky’s early work is sometimes treated almost as an incorrigible revelation of truth.

In his ‘Skeptically Speaking’ interview, Chomsky also sets up ‘straw men’ to attack. For example, no professional linguist known to me holds that language is entirely learned from experience, as he suggests they might (I know only of a few fringe amateur thinkers who adopt this view). And non-nativist linguists such as Sampson do not suggest or imply that language-learning must be ‘miraculous’, or that human minds are totally ‘plastic’ entities which might develop (quasi-)linguistic systems of ANY kind whatsoever. On the basis of evidence ignored or unconvincingly interpreted by nativists, Sampson argues (for example) that humans inherit genetically NOT Chomsky’s highly-specific language-learning ‘module’ but rather a more general ability to analyse complex data and produce systems such as language. He and other linguists who reject UG also point out that very few alleged features of UG, however abstract they may be, really admit of no exceptions; indeed, it is often easy to find counter-examples in varieties as familiar as British English. The fact that humans do seem to have inborn capabilities of this GENERAL nature does NOT imply that these capabilities must be as specific and restrictive in character as Chomsky holds.

Chomsky also ignores the substantial body of professional opinion which imports the position that some non-human mammals have, or can acquire, some of the most significant features of human language (at least to a degree). It suits him to reject this view, because he regards language as species-specific, and he is entitled to reject it; but he should not treat this as a matter of fact and should acknowledge that many well-informed persons think otherwise.

Chomsky talks rather more reasonably about linguistic evolution, and he rightly points out that the popular use of the term ‘evolution’ to refer to examples of linguistic change is misleading. The processes involved are not genetic; and, even if the analogical notion of ‘cultural evolution’ be accepted, most linguistic changes are not adaptive and are thus not parallel at all with biological evolution. But SOME changes (especially in vocabulary) ARE adaptive; and there are also some cases of long-term change (syntactic, etc.) where evolution may genuinely be in question. Again, it suits Chomsky to soft-pedal evolutionary issues, because he regards language as species-specific and the evolutionary aspects of the origins of human language bring this into question. (In doing this, he has inadvertently given comfort to creationist linguists.)

More next time!


For my new book Strange Linguistics, see:

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.

Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 13

June 6, 2013

Hi again, everybody! It is D-Day and I hereby pay tribute to the many thousands of brave young men from the Allied Nations who fell on the beaches of Normandy 69 years ago. My Dad came through and duly married my Mum in 1947, hence me! My brother & I visited the sites in 1988.

‘Hall Of Shame’ continues (early this week because my beloved & I are away in Yorkshire 7-9/6: Knaresborough Bed Race, Leeds vs Castleford at Rugby League, tour of the Allerton Hall stately home, etc).


I stress that van Polanen Petel (henceforth vPP) should NOT be visited with any shame; he is merely a very unusual Dutch thinker about language who was once my mature student (Monash University, Melbourne), continued to postgrad level there (despite the stimulating and varied – although of course clearly mainstream – environment of the Linguistics Department at Monash, the originality, not to say the strangeness, of his ideas is thus especially startling) and often, as it seems, fails to note quite HOW unusual his ideas are!

A key strength of vPP’s thought is that – like that of some prominent mainstream linguists such as Geoffrey Sampson and Peter Matthews – it is not closely bound to particular linguistic ‘paradigms’ or ‘frameworks’. However, a less welcome corollary of this feature is the idiosyncratic and often eccentric character of the notions expounded, many of which are presented as if the modern discipline of linguistics barely existed by way of background to the discussion. In many respects, in fact, the background to vPP’s views and approaches is mainly philosophical in character, including extensive reference to thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Quine, etc. Indeed, the concepts used are often related to the interesting but (in empirical domains) arguably superseded ideas of ANCIENT philosophers, notably Aristotle. vPP’s specifically linguistic sources, too, are often of great interest but mostly rather dated; recent work is not adequately taken into account. Furthermore, vPP often seems to believe that he has demonstrated the validity/truth of a point (often a strongly critical point which he himself is making in comment on an existing viewpoint) when in fact it appears that at best he has demonstrated that it is not impossible that his point is valid/true.

For instance, in his paper ‘On the notion Proper Language’ (Language Sciences, 28 (2006), pp. 508-520), vPP proposes that the traditional and still popular (folk-linguistic) notion of ‘proper language’ needs to be taken seriously by linguists. But he in fact distinguishes ‘proper language’ from the sociolinguistic notion of a ‘standard variety’, developing a piecemeal, idiosyncratic account of the former notion almost from scratch. His concluding discussion is predominantly in terms of logical/philosophical rather than linguistic or sociolinguistic properties of usage, and also very dense in terms of its argumentation; the strength of the claims made is unclear, and their specific relevance to the notion of ‘proper language’ as such is left rather obscure.

If I publish a second edition of my book or extended material conceived of as expansions of the book, I propose to review this paper as part of this enterprise.

More next time!


For my new book Strange Linguistics, see:

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.

Review of BBC’s Panorama Documentary About Burzynski

June 3, 2013

Note: Cross-posted with Skepticality.

This is Bob Blaskiewicz from, but I’m going to step away from skepticism in the humanities this week to address another project that I have been increasingly involved in over the past year, the work of skeptics to raise awareness of what happens to  cancer patients who end up at Stanislaw Burzynski’s Clinic in Houston. As skeptics who remember the threats issued to Rhys Morgan and others by someone hired by the clinic to do online reputation management in November 2011 know, Burzynski treats cancer patients with a form of chemotherapy he calls antineoplastons or ANP. These were originally isolated from human urine in the 1970s but are now synthesized by Burzynski in his plant. While it’s not impossible that he discovered endogenous compounds that would suppress cancer, in 35 years Burzynski has never once produced the type of evidence that could sort misdiagnoses, spontaneous remissions, and delayed responses the chemo and radiotherapy from any actual effect of the ANP, namely a controlled phase 3 clinical trial. Sure he has published case studies, case series and abstracts of poster presentations from unreviewed cancer symposia in low impact and alternative medicine journals, but never the gold standard phase 3 clinical trial.

Indeed, he has opened over 60 trials, but he’s finished only one and has published zero. This is important when you realize that Burzynski can only administer ANP to patients who have been entered into clinical trials and that, contrary to standard practice, Burzynski charges patients to enter his trials. The most recent numbers I’ve seen is that the initial consultation at the clinic costs patients $30,000 and subsequent “case management” routinely runs over $7,000 a month. Burzynski’s treatment bankrupts only the most desperate families, who often turn to the press to raise funds. I became interested and ultimately horrified when I found out that of all the patients who appeared in the press begging for money for whom I could find an outcome, all but two had died. And the ANP is really just the tip of the iceberg at this Clinic. The full range of Burzynski’s practices, including how Burzynski continues to generate revenue via genetic palm reading now that the FDA has placed a temporary hold on the ANP trials, can be seen in Orac’s very instructive series about Burzynski at Respectful Insolence.

Now, in the year and a half since Rhys and the others were threatened, skeptics have pushed very hard to raise awareness of Burzynski and put reliable information about ethical clinical trials in front of prospective patients. One of the most important outcomes of this, I think, was when Simon Singh tipped off the BBC’s investigative show Panorama to the story, who initiated an investigation. Numerous skeptics, myself included, were interviewed by phone for this documentary. So were many Burzynski’s supporters. Rhys Morgan was interviewed on camera about the threats against him. A number of cancer patients were interviewed as well. While we had originally thought that the episode was going to air around the end of April, it was finally released on June 3rd.

In some ways, it’s the best treatment of Burzynski that has been released; in other ways, the producers have inexplicably missed some of the most important stories. The first hint that this might be the case was when Rhys received a call notifying him that his interview had been dropped from the show. It didn’t fit the narrative, he was told. In some ways, that’s a type of decision I can grudgingly accept: critics being threatened is nowhere nearly as interesting as dissatisfied patients being threatened. And skeptics put Panorama in contact with pancreatic cancer patient Wayne Merritt, who was threatened by Burzynski, harassed at home no less, by the same clown who threatened Rhys. Panorama visited this family in the spring and interviewed them over 2 days at their home. Yet, inexplicably, the fact that the Clinic’s man threatened Burzynski’s Wayne and his wife Lisa Marie was not mentioned in the film!

Now there were a couple of interviews with physicians who said, basically, we have no evidence that Burzynski’s treatment works. We had a doctor at the children’s hospital in Houston who sees Burzynski’s patients when they come in suffering the powerful side effects of ANP or whose disease has progressed to the end stage. Panorama actually mentions that the Clinic has been exploiting a legal loophole in the FDA approval system, which is important. They stress that there is no good data to support the treatment. But they seem to have latched onto the human interest angle, which misses the overriding point about whether or not the treatment works. They don’t look into the quality of care that people are receiving there. For instance, they bring up the sad case of Amelia Saunders, a little girl in the UK who was on ANP for an incurable brain tumor. Following an MRI, Burzynski’s people told them that the tumor was breaking down because there were cysts in the middle of the tumor. David Gorski, who has specifically studied the growth of tumors said that this feature was far more characteristic of a tumor that had outgrown its blood supply. He pointed this out to the family, and they went to get a second opinion, and it turned out Gorski was right. The tumor was growing. Amelia eventually died. This was the first time that we had seen evidence of Burzynski letting patients believe that getting worse was a sign of getting better. And I have found that same pattern over and over and over in the online records of the patients that I and others have been researching for the last several months. Patients have unwittingly been reporting this behavior literally for decades. When you put these stories in proper context, what you see is that the betrayal of the Saunders’ trust no longer looks like an anomaly but an MO. We gave this information to Panorama. All of this research had been done and all they had to do was verify it. And they didn’t pick it up.

At the end of the show, the reporter wonders aloud, why has Burzynski has been able to sell the unproven treatment for decades? And they don’t answer it. It’s a question that should have guided the rest of the program. There’s a REAL STORY there, Panorama, one that is at the nexus of a number of crucial issues related to American health care, alternative medicine, cancer research, politics, government regulation, and law. It was handed to you, and I’m amazed that you missed it. I do think that you were wise to cut the interview with the patient who was looking to fundraise to see Burzynski. Perhaps it is my own bias, but I choose to think that was sort of judgment on your part as to whether or not the public good would be served by magnifying his plight.  In closing, I understand that there was only half an hour to tell this complex, convoluted tale, but people will still be going to him after this. This is only a start.

You can read the patient stories at Currently, those of us who are working on this story are looking for ways to amplify our signal, so if you have ideas, we’d love to hear from you. You can meet a number of people working on this important topic at the #burzynski hashtag on twitter.

further comments on child language acquisition, ‘skeptical linguistics, chomsky

June 3, 2013

These comments are taken from the ongoing exchange between Goran H & me re my Hall Of Shame 12. I am re-posting them as new posts because they are not really relevant to Hall Of Shame 12 and might thus be missed.

I do not see how Goran H comes to the view that a child learns its language slowly and with difficulty; as I said, inter-species comparison is not available, and as far as I can see no decisive reasons have been offered for being surprised either at how quickly or at how slowly first languages are learned (Chomskyans adduce ‘degenerate data’, implying that children do not receive enough specific information about their soon-to-be first language, but this claim has itself been disputed).

Of course, my own work is NOT itself ‘strange linguistics’ (‘fringe linguistics’, etc); it is ‘skeptical linguistics’ (skeptical comment on strange linguistics). Obviously I have an INTEREST in ‘strange linguistics’; otherwise I would probably not publish on it. But it is important to distinguish between critical/skeptical discussion and the material at which this discussion is directed.

This use of the term ‘skeptical’ (American in origin, hence the spelling) is distinct from the more general use of the term ‘sceptical’ (nowadays usually so spelled in the UK and Australasia). The more general term WOULD seem to exclude comment upon ideas which the writer was convinced were ‘nonsense’. (One is reminded of Berkeley’s dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, where the latter character denies that he is sceptical about the existence of matter because he is already altogether convinced that matter does not exist and that the idea of matter is absurd.) But other critics (skeptics) might not agree that the ideas in question in a given case (e.g. Chomskyan linguistics) were so clearly absurd as to be described as ‘nonsense’. And, even if they did agree, this would not exclude those ideas from specifically skeptical comment. Indeed, a high percentage of skeptical writing (on linguistics and more generally) deals with ‘extreme fringe’ ideas which do clearly appear (to the writers in question, at least) to be ‘nonsense’.

I myself agree with Chomsky’s view that there is an infinite number of sentences in each language. I do not think that Goran’s argument against this holds up For example, a series of tokens of one construction, or tokens of a series of constructions, can be ‘nested’ or ‘embedded’ indefinitely within each other, as in the poem This Is The House That Jack Built. Not only the constructions but (with suitable word-choice) many of the nouns, verbs etc can be repeated an indefinite number of times. The restrictions on sentence-length involve short-term memory, not strictly linguistic factors, and where the nesting/embedding is at the end of the sentence even memory is not necessarily a factor.


For my new book Strange Linguistics, see:

Copies are available through me at the author’s 50% discount, for EU 26.40 including postage to anywhere outside Germany. Please let me know if you’d like one, suggest means of payment (Paypal is possible) and provide your preferred postal address.

child language acquisition; notion of ‘skeptical linguistics’

June 2, 2013

Re Goron H’s recent comments on these themes:

I agree that it is not clear that (as Chomskyans claim) children learn their first languages ‘quickly and easily’ (except by comparison with most aduilts learning a second language). But surely it is not clear that they learn them slowly and with difficulty either. As Geoff Sampson points out somewhere (in agreeing with Goran & me on the initial point), we have no basis for comparison, i.e. we know of no other language-using species who might acquire their (similar?) languages more or less readily than Homo sapiens does. Given this fact, the only way to arrive at such judgments with confidence would be to show that there are clear reasons (psychological, etc) why humans should not learn their first languages as quickly and easily as they actually do, and that the facts on this front are thus genuinely surprising. I do not think that this has been achieved. Essentially, the Chomskyan view of this appears to be merely part of that only-partly-rational belief system.

I myself seem to have coined the term ‘skeptical linguistics’, but in any case it could NOT usefully be used to include Chomskyan linguistics or any other kind of linguistics deemed dubious or worse. If Chomskyan linguistics really is as ‘bad’ as Goran holds (and I obviously accept that it has many basic faults), it should perhaps be classified as ‘fringe’ linguistics, ‘nonsense linguistics’, or similar. This is not skeptical linguistics but the kind of material which skeptical linguistics CRITIQUES. See Chapter 12 of my book for mainstream and non-mainstream critiques of mainstream linguistics (including a summary of some of Goran’s own cogent mainstream critiques of Chomskyan linguistics).

Mark N